PASSING Initiative 502, which legalizes small amounts of marijuana for use by adults 21 years and older, should be a priority for supporters of racial justice in Washington.
On the merits alone, this legislation would advance Washington state’s criminal-justice policy, which features some of the worst racial disparities in the country, but there are other important reasons this initiative deserves strong support.
The war on drugs has been a colossal and costly failure, paid for largely with the blood of minority youth. In fact, the history of American drug law is one long story of discrimination against ethnic minorities, including the demonizing of Mexicans in the Southwest for marijuana use.
The passage of Initiative 502 on the Nov. 6 ballot would represent a great victory for Latinos in particular, serving as a symbolic redemption for decades of discrimination.
Supporting Initiative 502 will reduce the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of African Americans and Latinos. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Washington’s illegal drug users are white, ethnic minorities bear the brunt of criminal justice, as reported by the Task Force on Race and the Criminal Justice System at the Korematsu Center at Seattle University School of Law.
These groups are disproportionately convicted of drug offenses statewide, and Seattle ranks among the worst for mid-sized cities, with African Americans being 13 times more likely than whites to be arrested for drug offenses. Prisons and the consequences of a felony conviction are the most serious threats to the health of African-American and Latino communities.
Supporting the initiative would also reduce drug gangs, cartels and international interests in Washington’s underground drug economy. Gangs in general are a pressing problem in these communities, and this measure should be embraced as a powerful intervention strategy.
The failure of Initiative 502 would be a big boost for local drug gangs, as well as cartels in Canada and Mexico, which are literally killing each other to supply marijuana to Washington residents.
Supporting the initiative will save lives, and in particular, Latino lives. American drug policies offer lucrative markets for suppliers outside the country, many of which originate in Latin American countries. Drug-related violence in Mexico alone has resulted in an estimated 40,000 lives lost in the last decade.
The killings are directly related to factions competing for the American market. U.S. states that allow medical marijuana use are the most important to the Mexican drug trade.
Initiative 502 would set up a localized, self-sufficient infrastructure that would eliminate reliance on elements outside the state, which in turn would reduce bloodshed of Latinos — especially if other states followed suit.
Marijuana offenders face the threat of imprisonment, steep legal and financial obligations, and a conviction record that haunts job and housing applications. Moreover, prisons threaten communities through the release of inmates who suffer from high rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, mental illness and other health complications. Voters should recognize that the most dangerous aspects of marijuana use are getting arrested and imprisoned.
Supporting this measure will result in a net gain in African-American and Latino communities since, unfortunately, these groups suffer the most at the hands of the justice system.
The initiative will stem the damage wrought by the failed war on drugs, acknowledge the adult demand for marijuana, and send the message that there are other means to deal with drugs than the harsh whip of criminal justice. It is past time to end the war.
SpearIt is an assistant professor at St. Louis University School of Law.